Advent Music! “Good grief! Does this mean we have to sing dirges for four whole weeks?? No Christmas carols at all? Just “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” for a month? With all those verses??”
Well, as you probably guessed, I happen to love Advent hymns. But I wasn’t raised singing them. It wasn’t until I rediscovered my Lutheran heritage as an adult about ten years ago that I became enthralled with its lyrics, music, message, and origins in the ancient Church. Many of these melodies are based on chants dating back to the third century of the Common Era. I find them to be a marvelous, meaningful antidote to the frenzy and hype of modern commercialism this time of year. Did you know that hymns 239-267 of Evangelical Lutheran Worship, our newest Lutheran “hymnal,” are all Advent hymns? That’s 28 hymns for Advent — and surprise! — “Joy to the World (#267) ” is one of them!
Now, I suppose you’re still wondering about “O Come, O Come Emmanuel (#257).” This is just one example of many ancient chants found among those 28 hymns. This is probably the quintessential Advent hymn. It is derived from seven “O Antiphons” for use at the Vespers before and after the Magnificat in the last days of Advent, from December 17 to 23. Loaded with Old and New Testament references, these antiphons come from the time of Charlemagne in the eighth century or earlier and are as follows:
O Sapientia, quae es ora altissima . . . = O Wisdom from on High
O Adonai et dux domus Israel . . . = O Lord and leader of the house of Israel!
O Radix Jesse qui stas in signum popularum . . . = O Root of Jesse, who stood as a standard of the people…
O Clavis David et spectrum domus Israel . . . `= O Key of David and scepter of the house of Israel . . .
O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae . . . = O Dayspring, splendor of eternal light,
O Rex gentium, et desideratus earum . . . = O longed-for King of nations . . .
O Emmanuel, rex et legifer noster . . . = O Emmanuel, our king and lawgiver…
The first letters of the key second words, when they are read backwards, spell Ero cras, which means “I will be tomorrow,” that is, on Christmas Eve, December 24. You get the Advent message of preparation by waiting for it day by day. letter by letter. But it also suggests an even deeper meaning for the entire church year. In reading the acrostic backwards, the opposite suggests “I was yesterday.”(1) (“Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever.” ~ Hebrews 13:8)
Thanks be to God. A blessed Advent season to all of you!!
(1) Paul Westermeyer, Evangelical Lutheran Worship Hymnal Companion. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress (2010), 24-25.